Why an Always-Online Xbox Won't Work
An older model of the Xbox 360.
CREDIT: Public domain
Microsoft won't confirm that its next video game console will require a constant broadband connection, but at least one employee will go to great lengths to defend it. This could prove problematic, as according to the Federal Communications Commission's latest report, American broadband is not nearly as reliable as he claims.
The "always-online" model of gameplay (where users must be on the Internet at all times, even in single-player games) is a risky proposition for anything except dedicated online games (like "World of Warcraft"). However, Microsoft may want to build its entire next console on this paradigm. This strategy could save Microsoft a lot of money, as tying each user to a single copy of the game makes piracy impossible and could even prohibit practices like buying used games or borrowing games from friends.
The latest "always-online" debate began Friday morning (April 5) with Adam Orth, a creative director at Microsoft. "Sorry," tweeted Orth, "I don't get the drama around having an 'always on' console. Every device is 'always on.' That's the world we live in." He closed the tweet with a #dealwithit hashtag, which began trending soon afterward.
Soon, Orth began exchanging heated words with everyday fans as well as other industry professionals. Manveer Heir, a senior gameplay designer at game developer BioWare took Orth to task almost immediately. The two battled back and forth about the scarcity of stable broadband outside big cities, and the relative reliability of broadband versus electricity. Orth sassed that buying a vacuum cleaner was pointless as electricity occasionally goes out, while Heir reminded him that Internet connectivity is much less stable than a power supply.
The backlash was immense, with gamers calling out Orth over a perceived entitled attitude and condescending tweets. Even though Heir later clarified that he and Orth were good friends and simply engaging in some good-natured bickering, the damage had been done. The #dealwithit gaffe forced Orth to set his Twitter account to "private" in order to avoid the fallout. [See also: Why Console Gaming Is Dying]
Making Microsoft's next console online-only might lock an enormous number of people out of the experience. Just before the Twitter fiasco, the FCC revealed that it wanted to change the definition of "broadband" in the United States from "3 Mbps / 768 Kbps" (more simply: a 3-megait-per-second download speed, and a 768-kilobit-per-second upload speed) to "6 Mbps / 1.5 Mbps." In practical terms, this means that fewer Americans would possess an Internet connection that counts as "broadband."
Cable companies are not happy about this development. In essence, these organizations make a lot of money by keeping cable service slow, since many companies essentially have a monopoly in their respective areas. Upgrading equipment is, for them, an expensive and unnecessary process, since they have no need to remain competitive.
Modernizing systems could threaten cable company profits, according to DSL Reports. As a result, broadband Internet in many parts of the United States — in rural, suburban and urban communities — is slow and unreliable. What's more, users rarely have more than one or two choices between high-speed Internet providers.
According to the most recent FCC Broadband Progress Report, vast swaths of the western half of the United States have no broadband access whatsoever. Even in California, one of the most populous and tech-heavy states, the only reliable broadband service exists in the urban centers. Based on the FCC's map of broadband coverage in the United States, most of California has little or no high-speed Internet access.
Microsoft would only kneecap itself by requiring always-online access. Broadband may not be a problem for Orth, but he's not the only one interested in Microsoft's next machine.